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Japan Committed to Atomic Power as Renewable Energy Insufficient

Japan Committed to Atomic Power
The 40-year-old Fukushima plant, seen here in 2010, was built in the 1970s, when Japans first wave of nuclear construction began, stood up to the countrys worst earthquake on record only to have its power and back-up generators knocked out by the 7-meter tsunami that followed. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Japan remains committed to nuclear power after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, leaking radiation, because the country needs non-polluting energy sources, the government’s nuclear safety spokesman said.

“While people may become more cautious, renewable energy alone isn’t sufficient, so nuclear power is essential,” Hidehiko Nishiyama, a director general at the trade ministry, said in an interview in Tokyo yesterday.

Workers have toiled round the clock to prevent Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s plant from leaking more radiation into the air and sea, after a tsunami triggered by the magnitude-9 earthquake on March 11 damaged auxiliary generators running its cooling systems. The world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 prompted officials in China and India and U.S. lawmakers to call for a review of atomic energy plans.

“You can yell all you like about nuclear power, but sooner or later you’ve got to decide how we’re going to keep the lights turned on,” David Wark, a professor in high energy physics at Imperial University in London, said by phone yesterday. “You’ve got three choices: freeze, burn a lot of fossil fuels or build nuclear power plants. All those countries that are planning to build nuclear plants, in the end they don’t have any choice.”

With almost no oil or gas reserves of its own, nuclear power has been a national priority for Japan since the end of World War II, a conflict the country fought partly to secure oil supplies. Japan has 54 operating nuclear reactors -- more than any other country except the U.S. and France -- to power its industries, pitting economic demands against safety concerns in the world’s most earthquake-prone country.

‘No Nuclear Armageddon’

“Events in Japan could rebound to nuclear power’s benefit,” Wark said. “When there is no nuclear Armageddon, you can imagine people thinking it was all overdone.”

Before this month’s quake and tsunami, Japanese utilities including Tokyo Electric, had planned to increase nuclear power’s share of total electricity production to 50 percent by 2030 from 24 percent in 2008, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says. Nuclear power plants in 2009 accounted for 27 percent of the nation’s electricity generation, the EIA says.

The 40-year-old Fukushima plant, built in the 1970s when Japan’s first wave of nuclear construction began, stood up to the country’s worst earthquake on record only to have its power and back-up generators knocked out by the 7-meter tsunami that followed.

Cooling Systems

Engineers should consider ways to protect auxiliary power sources so plants can continue to keep spent fuel cool if a catastrophic wave knocks out the main power source, said Nishiyama, who has been briefing media on behalf of Japan’s nuclear safety agency since the temblor.

Lacking electricity to pump water needed to cool the atomic core, engineers vented radioactive steam into the atmosphere to release pressure, leading to a series of explosions that blew out concrete walls around some reactors.

Levels of radiation detected in the ocean 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Fukushima coast, and spinach and milk produced nearby have been found to exceed regulatory limits. Prime Minister Naoto Kan this week restricted shipments of spinach from Fukushima and nearby prefectures.

The levels detected don’t pose an immediate threat to human health, Nishiyama said, adding that even in the worst-case scenario, the 30-kilometer evacuation radius around the plant should be sufficient.

“People don’t need to leave Japan or Tokyo,” he said.

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